Making your home safer, simply

It's the little things.

Grab rails in showers can help prevent falls.

Decoration and practicality come together to make a house comfortable, utilitarian, and most importantly, a home. But safety ought to figure into the picture as well. A multitude of safety issues might present themselves as people age — things that weren’t considered when a home was first built. But solutions are at hand, and with these small, simple additions, you can continue to age safely in your homes. 

“There are so many ways to think about this,” said Vineyard Decorators chief operating officer Sophia Brush Warren. ”The first thing I would say is, whenever you renovate or build, you should think about safety issues for the elderly — even if you aren’t yet. Aesthetically, you want to allow form to follow function.”

Leslie Clapp, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living, rattled off a list of improvements. Some changes, according to Clapp and Warren, are fairly self-evident:

  • Remove throw rugs and add non-slip carpet pads for large rugs, and make sure your rugs are lying flat.
  • Placement of things: lower daily items like pills, soaps, basic cooking tools and ingredients so they are easily reachable.
  • Make sure emergency items like fire extinguishers are reachable.
  • Ensure there’s good lighting in critical places (ie. top of staircases, closets, passageways).
  • Ensure light switches are easy to reach.
  • Make sure passageways are clear (minimum width should be 36 inches).
  • Buy a “reach-and-grab” device. 
  • Arrange electrical cords so they are tidy and out of the way (use twist ties and set up a ‘charging station’ so that you don’t have to bend down and unplug things).
  • High volume doorbells and phones can be helpful.

Other changes, although still simple and subtle, are a little more involved and may require the help of a builder, contractor, interior designer, or architect: 

  • Install grab rails in the shower, near the bed, and around the home near doorway steps and places where the floor level changes. Make sure your grab rails are well-anchored and professionally installed.
  • Make sure there are banisters and railings where needed (stairs, decks/porches, and where floor levels change).
  • Install an adjustable, comfort-height toilet seat or shower chair.
  • Invest in portable ramps for wheelchair access. 
  • Scorch-proof your hot water to prevent burns.

For individuals with memory or cognitive issues, there are alarms that can ping caregivers if doors are opened or if someone gets out of bed. Falls are the most common serious injury for the elderly, and it’s a good idea to have a medical alert device if needed, according to Clapp. 

“We’re actively working with our Emergency Medical Technicians to assess the specific needs of our seniors,” said Victoria Hazel, outreach worker for the Edgartown Council on Aging. “EMTs can visit homes and make recommendations for improvements and ensure there’s a ‘file of life’ posted on the refrigerator, which contains patient details.”

Fortunately, there’s a wealth of information out there. You can do the research yourself, or work with consultants or organizations like Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, the M.V. Center for Living, and the town councils on aging. 

“Making these safety adjustments can be complicated but the problems presented can be solved,” Clapp said. “Working with your designer, architect, or builder is a good way to go.”